Friday, April 16, 2010

Don't Ask, Do Tell

When I was in OT school, I took a course in group treatment techniques. My classmates and I all took turns leading groups and playing the roles of different types of patients. We pretended that we were elderly women with dementia, stroke survivors, homeless and mentally ill, and drug addicts. One day it was my turn to be the group leader, and my population was a group of alcoholic teenagers. I stood at the front of the room, and nervously asked, "Does everybody want to stand in a big circle?" My professor, who was playing one of the patients, yelled, "NOOOOOOOO!!!!!" and stopped me cold. As I stood there gibbering, she smirked, "Never ask a question unless you're sure you can deal with whatever answer you get."

If there is one thing that I could wave my therapist's wand and change in the behavior of parents, teachers, and nannies, it would be the unfortunate tendency of asking the child if he wants to do something when he really has no choice about it. I hear this all the time: "Do you want to take off your coat?" "Do you want to put on your shoes?" "Loren's ready for you, do you want to go into the gym?" I heard a nanny ask a little boy who was there to see me for the first time to get some help with his handwriting, sitting in the waiting room looking scared and shy, "Would you like to go in with the lady?" {Fortunately, he did. But what if he had said no?}

This used to happen to me when I worked in a school for a year and had a little boy on my caseload who could not happily transition from one activity to the next. I would walk into the room, and the teacher, or the aide, would ask, "Do you want to go to OT?"

Guess what he always said. "NO!!" So then I was stuck! The grownups had given him a choice, and he had clearly expressed his preference. I was then forced into coaxing him, which never worked. The more I cajoled, the less he wanted to interact with me. I would give up and go see another child, whose teacher was not expecting me, and come back. What a waste of time, and how silly of us to leave the decision to come to OT up to him.

When I trained the teacher and the aides to say, "Loren's here. It's time for OT. Bye!" he would get up and go. No muss, no fuss.

A mom who had consulted me because her child was having trouble listening to the teacher at school {and to her at home, as well} told me, I speak to my son like that because I want him to speak to me like that. OK, fair enough. You want him to learn to address you politely. But you are not equals. You, the adult, are in charge. The person in authority tells others what to do, and frankly, the child infinitely prefers it that way. Children know that they are not adults and should not be in charge, and should not be on equal footing with the ones who are in charge.

Children who are being taken care of by grownups who are clearly and kindly in charge feel safe and secure. When they feel safe and secure, that allows them to explore, expand their horizons, and develop freely. You can say please and thank you when you tell him to do something, but it's not a good idea to give him a choice about it when he doesn't actually have one.

Small children are concrete thinkers. If you ask a grown up, "Want to set the table for me?" The grown up will correctly interpret this request as "I need you to set the table now." The young child will not. He thinks he's being given a choice, and will resent you when you force him to do something that he just told you he didn't want to do when you asked if he wanted to do it.

In order to give the child some necessary autonomy, you can present choice embedded within a command. "It's time for lunch. Would you like a sandwich or a bowl of soup?" "Time for homework. Which assignment would you like to work on first?" "Time to get ready for bed. Would you like to start by brushing your teeth or would you rather put on your pajamas?"

If your child is sensory defensive, he will almost automatically say no to anything at first, because he doesn't have the emotional flexibility to be spontaneous. Many young children are like this -- they need some time before they can get used to an idea and will say no until they have a chance to mull something over. So it's extra important not to phrase things in such a way that the child thinks he has a real option of not participating, if he truly does not.

I once heard a father ask his four year old boy, another child who had problems transitioning, if he wanted to go to OT. I had called them with a last minute cancellation and asked if they wanted to come to the clinic for a make up session. The father yelled, "Tommy, want to go to OT?" The little boy yelled back, "NOOOOOOO!!!!!" Although his parents had not intended it that way, he had been given a choice, and he had clearly expressed his preference. They tried to argue him out of it, but he dug in his heels. So he missed the session. He loved OT and would have been very happy to come if the adults had just told him it was time to go and handed him his coat. This child has tons of behavior problems, because his parents can't bring themselves to be in control and set limits. He rules the house, and he knows it. He doesn't feel secure, and is constantly pushing them, behaving more and more outrageously, in an attempt to get them to rein him in.

Another thing I would like to banish forever is asking the child to do something, and then saying, "OK?" at the end of the sentence. Remember, the child is not an abstract thinker yet. "OK?" means "is this OK with you?" to him. "Do your homework, OK?" is just not going to get the job done as efficiently as "Time to do homework."

We unwittingly negate our authority when we do these things. There is a huge difference between being controlling and being in control. We don't need to be controlling; we can offer choices when they are appropriate. Our children feel safe and secure when they know that the grownups are the ones making the important decisions and holding the limits steady.


silvio soprani said...

All so true!
When I was in graduate school to get my teaching degree, we read some research about a young, white first-year teacher from the northeast who went to a southern elementary school with primarily African-American pupils. Her intonation was as you described: every "direct instruction" to the class was phrased as a question. Her students would not follow her instruction, and she did not understand why. On the other hand, typical African-American female teachers in her school phrased their instructions as an order, without the raised pitch at the end of the sentence that denotes a question.
This was the first time I had ever considered this issue, but really, it is such an important thing to understand when dealing with children. An order does not need to be delivered like a drill sergeant, but it does need to be a non-question.

laura said...

I think the best line in this post is that "You [and your child] are not equals." Why is it so hard for my generation to take the burden of this authority. "You, the adult, are in charge." ?

I suppose we were so anti-authority some of us that it feels so difficult to be an authority. But it is a disservice to the child.

Very good post, Loren.

Anonymous said...

As adults, and to the extent we are in control of our own lives, we can anticipate when we will disengage from one activity to engage in another. I believe that children need to be told when there will be a transition from one activity to another. I would let my children know that the present activity would end in, say, five minutes. After a brief period of time (and I never actually looked at my watch), I would inform the child that it was time to move to the next activity. I think this helped the child to anticipate and be ready to deal with change and not be threatened by it.

Barbara said...

Very well said, wish I can get some friends to understand this...

silvio soprani said...

Laura, I think you have hit it right on the head regarding that generational issue of transitioning from being "anti-authority" to becoming the authority. I had my kids in the late 70s/early 80s, coming off of my own decade of becoming an adult. I could have used some kind of workshop or retreat to deal with this, but I never even understood that it was an issue until my kids were in their 20's. That is kind of embarrassing to admit, but there it is.

Kate said...

My husband has a problem with adding "OK?" at the end of every statement to our children. He says he means it more like, "Did you hear me?" but the one- and three-year-old don't understand that! They take it, just like you noted, as a true question that gives them an option. I think that if he wants confirmation that he was heard, it would even be better to make the definitive statement and then add "Did you hear me?" Seems like the little concrete thinkers would understand that better.